Video images and sounds literally at your finger tips. `The Erl King' lets viewers interact with a TV screen that's touch-sensitive

Although it's still a young phenomenon, video art seems already to be entering a new phase, based on sophisticated ``interactive'' technology - allowing viewers to respond to a work in a way that alters the work itself. What may be the first major achievement in this format is on view through tomorrow at the Kitchen arts center here. ``The Erl King,'' directed by Grahame Weinbren, borrows its content from a variety of sources, including beloved works by Goethe and Schubert, experimental trombone music, psychoanalysis, and automobile racing. Its most noteworthy aspects, though, are its technology and its structure.

The spectator sits at a console, facing a small television screen that's sensitive to touch - thanks to an invisible network of infrared beams that crisscross it. The work begins with a soprano singing Schubert's familiar ``Erlk"onig'' lied.

The spectator is invited to touch the screen with a finger, at any time, and the video mechanism responds (depending on where the screen was touched) by changing to different images, different sounds, or both. The spectator may continue to touch the screen, and thus manipulate the audiovisual experience, as often - and for as long a time - as desired.

``The Erl King'' has no linear story, but rather a complex web of images and sounds that relate, directly or by association, to the themes of the work. These themes include father-son distrust and ``the sinister side of nature,'' according to notes by the director. When new pictures and sounds appear in response to a touch, they aren't random, but have been systematically programmed by Mr. Weinbren in accordance with the work's overall plan.

Since certain rules are built into ``The Erl King,'' it's possible for the spectator to elicit some effects at will - calling up English translations of the ``Erlk"onig'' poem, for instance.

But the programming of the piece is complex, with secondary and tertiary levels that open up successively (like bamboo shoots, or ``Arabian Nights'' tales within tales) as spectator and console interact. So users of ``The Erl King'' will often be surprised at the sounds and pictures that answer their touches.

Discussing his work with a few interested parties at the Kitchen recently, director Weinbren - a movie editor by profession - made an interesting case for interactive video as a new art form. I noted that ``The Erl King'' resembles aleatory music (with indeterminate ``chance'' elements), since it never unfolds the same way twice. Weinbren resisted the aleatory label, though, saying all the imagery and sound has been programmed in such a way that it will appear only when appropriate to the design of the work.

I also asked whether, in his view, spectators are helping to ``create'' the work (do-it-yourself art!) when they manipulate its content by touching the screen. Weinbren asserted that ``The Erl King'' is entirely his own creation, since he has preordained all of its possible sound-image combinations and sequences.

I'm not sure I agree with all of Weinbren's aesthetic notions, but his work - designed to give us the feeling of ``wandering through somebody's mind,'' as he puts it - raises provocative issues. ``The Erl King'' has been shown in Los Angeles and (in a less rigorously programmed form) in the prestigious Biennial show at the Whitney Museum of American Art here. It deserves to be seen and discussed widely.

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